For this week’s DukeEngage reflection, we were asked to discuss an article that questions a common narrative related to our project. Given the nature of our theme, “Post Pandemic Paraguay,” I have followed the news in Paraguay and analyzed content from a variety of sources. Putting these thoughts in writing is a beneficial exercise.
Generally speaking, Paraguay has been applauded for its COVID-19 response plan. The success stems from Julio Mazzoleni, the country’s public health minister, who was appointed to the position due to his medical credentials rather than mere party politics. Mazzoleni understood that Paraguay’s fragile health system would collapse with a COVID-19 outbreak; according to recent World Bank data, Paraguay’s $318 annual per-capita health spending is 41% of Brazil’s $928 and a mere 3% of the United States’ $10,246. Both Brazil and the United States have failed to successfully contain outbreaks, and the respective countries’ presidents have been criticized for downplaying the severity of the virus. Paraguay’s president Mario Abdo Benítez, on the other hand, has collaborated with the Ministry of Public Health, and the country implemented one of the first shutdowns in Latin America on 20 March. The shutdown was nationally extensive with schools, non-essential businesses, and borders closed. By the end of June, Paraguay was in the third period of “Cuarentena Inteligente,” its phased re-opening process, with 19 documented deaths and 2127 accumulated cases: impressive numbers given its underfunded health system and relative to geographic neighbors.
Paraguay is a landlocked country. It has been referred to as “Una isla rodeada de tierra” because of its general isolation from regional corruption and trivial border traffic. During the COVID-19 era, however, the phrase is far from the truth. With thousands of migrant workers returning home from Brazil, cases have not accumulated in hospitals, but elsewhere: in the country’s isolation centers. These military-run facilities have been described as prisons and coronavirus camps because of inadequate and despairing conditions. The camps have been an effective strategy at preventing the virus from diffusing throughout the country, but at what cost?
When prompted to analyze a lesser-known perspective to more comprehensively understand Paraguay’s COVID-19 response, I recalled reading “Inside Paraguay’s Coronavirus Shelters,” by Paola Canova, Ph.D., a professor of Anthropology at UT Austin, who quarantined in a coronavirus camp for 17 days beginning on 28 March. In her article, Dr. Canova writes, “We suffered a lack of access to medical attention, and by the second week we were fighting with the military overseers for access to water, toilet paper, and basic cleaning supplies. Our complaints went unheard. Meanwhile, the media criticized us for denouncing our conditions, frequently reiterating support for the Ministry of Health. Little did we know at the time that the groups arriving at the border after us would be housed under even harsher conditions.”
The coronavirus camps prevent asymptomatic virus carriers from spreading COVID-19 throughout Paraguay, yet people who enter the facilities without pre-exposure to the virus are at a high risk of contracting it during the quarantine period. Dr. Canova describes physical needs of detainees—water, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies— but it is also crucial to understand that these camps do not propagate commonly-known scientific data: close quarters facilitate the spread of COVID-19. The camps account for 65% of Paraguay’s COVID-19 cases; thus, the establishment of such facilities is quite hypocritical for a country that elsewhere mandated strict social distancing and curfews.
While changing the past is unfeasible, it is disappointing that Paraguay’s COVID-19 response plan was not just for all of its citizens—including those who earn a living beyond its land borders. As we discuss interventions for the post-pandemic era, it is important that new policies are equitable and promote the domestic economy. The fact that migrant workers immediately return to Paraguay when employment abroad is terminated substantiates the argument that with more economic promise, Paraguayans would choose to stay en la isla rodeada de tierra.